California, All Strip Malls and Loneliness

There is this myth of California, one that can’t seem to be shattered even by those who have lived here their whole lives, in towns and cities that don’t fit into the pre-molded stereotype of sunny Los Angeles. It’s the same one that’s probably existed since around the time of that whole manifest destiny yarn: that it’s open spaces, promised land and, in short, the solution to all one’s ills.

But it’s not a solution so much as an extremely effective numbing agent. For the twenty-one years that Adrian existed within the confines of this geographical medication, he was not aware that the state was a vacuum bag where brains went to be sucked up. He fell under the collective delusion, too. And it was one beaten mercilessly into his psyche by his family, friends and high school sweetheart. None of them would ever dream of leaving this paradise. And so, this was the mentality that rubbed off on Adrian too. Why depart if no one else was ever going to? Everyone and everything he needed was here in San Luis Obispo. The town was almost exactly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, somewhat representing Julian’s own in-between nature. The closer he got to graduating from, where else, Cal Poly, the more afraid he became that life in California was it. All strip malls and loneliness.

His job at the Madonna Inn was meant to help him gain both funds for his major (landscape architecture) and give him the practical life experience he had yet to endure. But there was nothing practical about checking in the sort of guests that came to the Madonna Inn. They all tended to be animatedly crazy, whereas, in his California-bound past, he had only ever known people to be stoically crazy. It made him wonder more about the outside world than ever. And when he asked a worldly man with a much younger girlfriend where he was from, he proudly replied, “New Jersey.”

It was then that Julian made up his mind: he would leave for his tour of the other coast at the end of the semester, and start in New Jersey. Telling Claire, his longtime girlfriend, about this proved even more of a challenge than he thought. She was in the midst of collaging some found objects onto paper she had made out of bark when he proceeded to tell her, thereby instantly ruining her good mood.

“Why would you go anywhere else? This is the only place–for anyone.”

“I don’t know if I believe that’s true anymore.”

She rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand. “You’re making a mistake. I’ve left you know. It’s exactly the same everywhere, but colder.”

“You’re wrong.”

“And what happens to us?”

“Can’t you wait for me?”

She scoffed. “No. I don’t think I can. Why would I wait for someone foolish enough to believe there’s something more out there than California?”

Julian sighed. “I have to do this. If you can’t understand it, then maybe whatever we were was just a moment in time.”

Claire slapped a pre-glued leaf onto her bark and screamed, “You don’t deserve this state!”

Luckily, congenital passive aggressiveness prevented her from throwing any of the pieces for her collage at him. As he walked out of her apartment, he already felt an immediate sense of levity. He had no one to answer to now. His parents had died in the past couple years and he had fallen out of touch with most of the friends he had in high school, now scattered to other cities in California as lawyers or doctors or horticulturists or sommeliers.

He was free to finally discover what was out there. Outside the promised land. And so, he waited until school was over, quit his job at Madonna Inn and packed a single suitcase for his journey.

Upon landing in Newark, Julian wasn’t quite as riveted as he expected himself to be. The skyline alone was enough to make SLO appear like sheer paradise in comparison. And the dissatisfied look–paired with the unfortunate physiognomies of most of the arriving passengers–didn’t do much to reassure Julian. Rather than stay in Newark as he had planned, Julian rented a car at the airport and was advised to drive south to Camden, where at least he could always get to Philadelphia more easily if he found himself feeling antsy.

Julian took the rental car attendant’s advice, not able to trust his own, or the internet’s. It was roughly 2:20 p.m. when he left, which would put his arrival time at around just before four. Ample time for him to discover the night. Passing through each new town, however, Julian’s previous sentiment of disheartenment was only further fortified. It seemed every area either looked the same or was grayer and more dilapidated than the last. Claire was proving him wrong from afar, and he could almost feel her sadistic pleasure over this from three-ish thousand miles away.

When he got to Camden, he stopped at a 711 on Cooper Street. The clientele inside was as visibly irritated as everyone else he encountered thus far on the pilgrimage. In California, people didn’t have this perpetual frown and furrowed brow. It was more like blank canvas facial expressions. He could feel his own countenance shifting from the blankness, starting to mirror the others around him.

Upon exiting the 711, he took a moment to appraise the parking lot, which played host to a number of similarly unimpressive and unassuming cars. The sun was setting, and all around him there was decay and emptiness. A voiceless American spirit whispering, “Buy or die.” Julian took a sip of his most likely day old coffee and a bite of the donut that was far inferior to any of the worst ones he had ever tried in California.

He felt a sudden sense of calm. So it wasn’t just California that was this way–a sweeping sprawl of commercial entities and boredom. But maybe, he thought, what made it worse was the constant sunshine and lack of emotion, lending a hyper-surreal sense of non-reality to everything. Lulling you into submission.


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